Restore the Bay-Delta and Wild Salmon Runs

August 10, 2015
John Hannon/USBR

California’s San Francisco Bay-Delta used to support vibrant salmon runs that would fill rivers with spawning fish every fall and spring. But as the state’s population and agriculture industry grew, more rivers were dammed and diverted. Today, more than 1,400 dams block access to most of the historical breeding grounds of California’s native salmon. Excessive water diversions have also destroyed salmon habitat. Roughly 60 miles of the San Joaquin River ran dry for decades, and other rivers dropped as well—pushing wild salmon to the brink of extinction.

NRDC is working to restore the Bay-Delta and its tributary rivers, as well as California's wild salmon populations. In 1988, we filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for drying out the San Joaquin River and violating state laws that protect fish. The case unfolded over 18 years, but in 2006, we reached a settlement requiring the government to restore river flows and salmon runs. It also resulted in the creation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, a comprehensive effort to revive the waterway and the jobs it supports. A vocal minority persists in trying to block salmon reintroduction and overturn the court-approved agreement, pursuing legislation to interfere with river restoration. We continue to defend the restoration program and advocate for full and timely implementation of the settlement, which has been called the largest river restoration of its kind in the United States.

In 2005, we challenged plans to expand and increase water diversions out of the Bay-Delta by two of the country's largest water projects: the federal Central Valley Project and California’s State Water Project. Those successful lawsuits reduced the amount of freshwater taken out of the delta; increased protections for native salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and smelt; and led to new, far more protective plans, which were implemented in 2008 and 2009. We successfully defended these revised plans (called biological opinions) all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court from multiple challenges by corporate agribusiness, wholesale water sellers, and other water users around the state. These biological opinions are now law of the land.

We also advocate for improved river flows and conditions for native salmon in and upstream of the delta through a combination of updated water-quality requirements, improved water management, and reduced diversions enabled by investments in alternative sustainable water supplies, such as water recycling and reuse, stormwater capture, and more efficient urban and agricultural water use. These measures not only improve the health of the Bay-Delta—a source of drinking water for more than 22 million people—but also allow California to be more resilient in the face of drought and climate change. We also fight against state proposals—like the poorly named BayDelta Conservation Plan—that would take even more water out of the delta than is directed by state law.